Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Paul Fussell (1924–2012)

Professor, author and World War II veteran Paul Fussell died last week at the age of 88. I first encountered his scholarly work, and still have his well-regarded book, Poetic Meter & Poetic Form, on my shelves. He may be best known for his ambitious and insightful work of literary criticism, The Great War and Modern Memory (1975). He wrote two great war memoirs, Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War (1989) and Doing Battle: The Making of a Skeptic (1996). He also wrote the occasional introduction and article. (I made a point of getting the edition of E.B. Sledge's With the Old Breed with Fussell's introduction.) Here are the obituaries from The New York Times, The Washington Post and the AP. Fussell was firmly in that pro-soldier, anti-war tradition, an acerbic, lucid and candid writer. The WaPo piece captures this well:

Mr. Fussell returned from the war with a deep respect for ordinary soldiers but with a lasting contempt for war itself. He was critical of Tom Brokaw, Stephen Ambrose and other writers and filmmakers who, he believed, sentimentalized war without describing the brutality and violence faced by soldiers.

The best way to honor Fussell is to feature his own writing. His 1982 Harper's feature "My War: How I Got Irony in the Infantry" should be read in full, but here are some excerpts:

Over the past few years I find I’ve written a great deal about war, which is odd because I’m supposed to be a professor of English literature. And I find I’ve given the Second World War a uniformly bad press, rejecting all attempts to depict it as a sensible proceeding or to mitigate its cruelty and swinishness. I have rubbed readers’ noses in some very noisome materials—corpses, maddened dogs, deserters and looters, pain, Auschwitz, weeping, scandal, cowardice, mistakes and defeats, sadism, hangings, horrible wounds, fear and panic. Whenever I deliver this unhappy view of the war, especially when I try to pass it through a protective screen of irony, I hear from outraged readers. Speaking of some ironic aesthetic observations I once made on a photograph of a mangled sailor on his ruined gunmount, for example, a woman from Brooklyn found me “callous,” and accused me of an “overwhelming deficiency in human compassion.” Another reader, who I suspect has had as little empirical contact with the actualities of war face to face as the correspondent from Brooklyn, found the same essay “black and monstrous” and concluded that the magazine publishing it (Harper’s, actually) “disgraced itself.”

How did I pick up this dark, ironical, flip view of the war? Why do I enjoy exhibiting it? The answer is that I contracted it in the infantry. Even when I write professionally about Walt Whitman or Samuel Johnson, about the theory of comparative literature or the problems facing the literary biographer, the voice that’s audible is that of the pissed-off infantryman, disguised as a literary and cultural commentator. He is embittered that the Air Corps had beds to sleep in, that Patton’s Third Army got all the credit, that noncombatants of the Medical Administrative and Quartermaster Corps wore the same battle stars as he, that soon after the war the “enemy” he had labored to destroy had been rearmed by his own government and positioned to oppose one of his old allies. “We broke our ass for nothin’,” says Sergeant Croft in The Naked and the Dead. These are this speaker’s residual complaints while he is affecting to be annoyed primarily by someone’s bad writing or slipshod logic or lazy editing or pretentious ideas. As Louis Simpson says, “The war made me a foot-soldier for the rest of my life,” and after any war foot soldiers are touchy.

My war is virtually synonymous with my life. I entered the war when I was nineteen, and I have been in it ever since. Melville’s Ishmael says that a whale ship was his Yale College and his Harvard. An infantry division was mine, the 103rd, whose dispirited personnel wore a colorful green-and-yellow cactus on their left shoulders. These hillbillies and Okies, dropouts and used-car salesmen and petty criminals were my teachers and friends.

This intro immediately makes me like the guy, someone who can and does connect Melville with his time in the infantry, and who still identifies as a skeptical, "pissed-off infantryman, disguised as a literary and cultural commentator."

Later in the piece, he describes his first months of combat, and how they changed him:

We were in “combat.” I find the word embarrassing, carrying as it does false chivalric overtones (as in “single combat”). But synonyms are worse: “fighting” is not accurate, because much of the time you are being shelled, which is not fighting but suffering; “battle” is too high and remote; “in action” is a euphemism suited more to dire telegrams than description. “Combat” will have to do, and my first hours of it I recall daily, even now. They fueled, and they still fuel, my view of things.

Everyone knows that a night relief is among the most difficult of infantry maneuvers. But we didn’t know it, and in our innocence we expected it to go according to plan. We and the company we were replacing were cleverly and severely shelled; it was as if the Germans a few hundred feet away could see us in the dark and through the thick pine growth. When the shelling finally stopped, at about midnight, we realized that although near the place we were supposed to be, until daylight we were hopelessly lost. The order came down to stop where we were, lie down among the trees, and get some sleep. We would finish the relief at first light. Scattered over several hundred yards, the 250 of us in F Company lay down in a darkness so thick we could see nothing at all. Despite the terror of our first shelling (and several people had been hit), we slept as soundly as babes. At dawn I awoke, and what I saw all around were numerous objects I’d miraculously not tripped over in the dark. These objects were dozens of dead German boys in greenish-gray uniforms, killed a day or two before by the company we were relieving. If darkness had hidden them from us, dawn disclosed them with open eyes and greenish-white faces like marble, still clutching their rifles and machine pistols in their seventeen-year-old hands, fixed where they had fallen. (For the first time I understood the German phrase for the war dead: die Gefallenen.) Michelangelo could have made something beautiful out of these forms, in the Dying Gaul tradition, and I was startled to find that at first, in a way I couldn’t understand, they struck me as beautiful. But after a moment, no feeling but shock and horror. My adolescent illusions, largely intact to that moment, fell away all at once, and I suddenly knew I was not and never would be in a world that was reasonable or just. The scene was less apocalyptic than shabbily ironic: it sorted so ill with modern popular assumptions about the idea of progress and attendant improvements in public health, social welfare, and social justice. To transform guiltless boys into cold marble after passing them through unbearable fear and humiliation and pain and contempt seemed to do them an interesting injustice. I decided to ponder these things. In 1917, shocked by the Battle of the Somme and recovering from neurasthenia, Wilfred Owen was reading a life of Tennyson. He wrote his mother: “Tennyson, it seems, was always a great child. So should I have been, but for Baumont Hamel.” So should I have been, but for St. Dié.

After that, one day was much like another: attack at dawn, run and fall and crawl and sweat and worry and shoot and be shot at and cower from mortar shells, always keeping up a jaunty carriage in front of one’s platoon; and at night, “consolidate” the objective, usually another hill, sometimes a small town, and plan the attack for the next morning. Before we knew it we’d lost half the company, and we all realized then that for us there would be no way out until the war ended but sickness, wounds, or oblivion. And the war would end only as we pressed our painful daily advance. Getting it over was our sole motive. Yes, we knew about the Jews. But our skins seemed to us more valuable at the time.

Fussell writes clearly and very candidly. He paints strong images and has a good sense of irony and absurdity, but also brings an honesty about what he saw and felt, including his own fear, leading to striking passages like this:

That month away from the line helped me survive for four weeks more but it broke the rhythm and, never badly scared before, when I returned to the line early in March I found for the first time that I was terrified, unwilling to take the chances that before had seemed rather sporting. My month of safety had renewed my interest in survival, and I was psychologically and morally ill prepared to lead my platoon in the great Seventh Army attack of March 15, 1945. But lead it I did, or rather push it, staying as far in the rear as was barely decent. And before the day was over I had been severely rebuked by a sharp-eyed lieutenant-colonel who threatened court martial if I didn’t pull myself together. Before that day was over I was sprayed with the contents of a soldier’s torso when I was lying behind him and he knelt to fire at a machine gun holding us up: he was struck in the heart, and out of the holes in the back of his field jacket flew little clouds of tissue, blood, and powdered cloth. Near him another man raised himself to fire, but the machine gun caught him in the mouth, and as he fell he looked back at me with surprise, blood and teeth dribbling out onto the leaves. He was one to whom early on I had given the Silver Star for heroism, and he didn’t want to let me down.

Part of the piece involves him as an older man looking back over his letters home and dissecting his own youthful self, especially his own self-delusion. He's harsh and clinical but not unnecessary cruel in these self-judgments. I was particularly struck by this passage, as older, author Fussell speaks of young infantryman Fussell writing to his parents:

He seems unable to perceive what is happening, constantly telling his addressee what will please rather than what he feels. He was never more mistaken than when he assured his parents while recovering from his wounds, “Please try not to worry, as no permanent damage has been done.”

Near the end of the piece, he discusses his entry into academia:

In becoming a college teacher of literature I was aware of lots of company: thousands of veterans swarmed to graduate schools to study literature, persuaded that poetry and prose could save the world, or at least help wash away some of the intellectual shame of the years we’d been through. From this generation came John Berryman and Randall Jarrell and Delmore Schwartz and Saul Bellow and Louis Simpson and Richard Wilbur and William Meredith and all the others who, afire with the precepts of the New Criticism, embraced literature, and the teaching of it, as quasi-religious obligation.

There's a gentle self-reproach here, and that's completely appropriate. Still, Fussell shouldn't sell himself or his compatriots short, given how many lives they have touched for the better. Fussell is one of a number of fine war writers who have given a much more honest portrait of what war actually entails. War itself is not noble, even if service is, and there's something admirable and necessary in writing about it truthfully. Human folly is pernicious. But good poetry and prose can save the world, or at least give some solace. At the very least, they make the world more worthy of saving.

1 comment:

dpjbro said...

Fussell's insights into war making from the foot soldier's point of view should be required reading by anyone over the age of consent. His knowledge of life cannot be replaced. He is greatly missed by this reader.